“The first city in the world that’s built around your family. Before we laid a brick, we laid plans for a clean, uncongested city of 40,000 on 3,500 acres of beautiful land in Warren County, N.C. There will be 18,000 jobs at Soul City. But while people will work in a city, they’ll live in a village, within 10 minutes of work. All types of homes are available at Soul City. Everything you need to live here is here now, plus many recreational facilities. Here people of all ages, races and religions work together, play together, learn together. Soul City: A fresh start.”
So reads a 1977 advertisement for one of the more ambitious urban planning projects of its time. The brainchild of Asheville native Floyd McKissick Sr., Soul City reflected a far-reaching vision. McKissick aimed to build, from the ground up, a city where African-Americans could live, work, play and develop their own small businesses alongside people of all races: a multiethnic utopia sustained by private enterprise.
In 1972, Soul City received a $14 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that enabled construction to begin. But a combination of political pressure and negative press undermined the project, and today, visitors to the area will find only fragments of the idyllic community McKissick envisioned.
Soul City’s remains sit 53 miles north of Raleigh, some four hours’ drive from Asheville. But the experiences McKissick had in the city of his birth played a key role in shaping the activist approach to civil rights and racial justice that eventually found form in his utopian experiment (see sidebar, “McKissick in Asheville”).
The First Baptist Church of Soul City still stands, serving a small neighboring community. A short distance from the church stands an abandoned building that once housed Healthco Inc. Until the late 1990s, the clinic offered affordable health care, including dentistry and pharmaceuticals, on a sliding fee scale to underserved populations across Warren County and beyond. And while Soul City is no longer an actual municipality, the project’s spirit lingers on street signs like Liberation Road and Freedom Circle, though those noble aspirations contrast sharply with current conditions in the economically depressed area.
The centerpiece of the economic plan was Soul Tech 1, a concrete, steel and glass monolith meant to house a manufacturing firm that would provide most of the jobs. It’s now owned by the North Carolina prison system, and it may be a blessing that McKissick didn’t live to see the structure become a place where inmates produce janitorial supplies for the state.
“The saddest part for me is that where my father’s office was is now part of the prison system,” notes Charmaine McKissick-Melton, who still lives in the heart of the original Soul City. The youngest of four siblings, she’s an associate professor of mass communication at N.C. Central University. In addition, says McKissick-Melton, she serves on the Warren County Parks and Recreation Commission and heads up the Soul City Parks and Recreation Association.
Reflecting on the complexity of living in the wake of Soul City’s apparent failure, she says, “I was asked to speak at the Warren County High School commencement — which is, in essence, what would have been the same school” serving Soul City residents. “At the end of the day … I wanted those students to understand what Soul City was … and what they still get from that project,” says “Dr. Mac,” as she’s known to her students and peers.
Her mother, Evelyn McKissick, “was the first elected official of … the Soul City Sanitary District … the leader in creating the Kerr Lake Regional Water System, which is a better water system than even Raleigh-Durham has right now. It’s the reason, when you go up Interstate 85, all those counties” — Granville, Warren and Vance — “have the water they need,” Dr. Mac explains, adding, “That’s a residual, major impact of Soul City, and how it has increased the community’s economic development.”
If the project had succeeded, the water system would have been only one of many benefits for the area. In a booklet prepared for potential investors, McKissick laid out a practical case for his vision:
“We do have a concept at Soul City that can be a prime means to revitalize blighted rural areas and stem migration. … Development of Soul City is occurring in an area which is now severely depressed; the advantages for development are very great. … The Seaboard Coast Line Railroad runs through the Employment Park. Interstate Highway 85 is one mile from the site, and I-95 is approximately 40 miles to the east. U.S. 1 and 158 run on the northern periphery. Thus, Soul City is connected with the major metropolitan markets in the industrial Piedmont and the Eastern Seaboard.”
But there were other reasons, too, that McKissick chose this particular Warren County acreage, notes Dr. Mac. “He knew the area,” knew that in the early 1960s, there’d already been talk of establishing a store that would be cooperatively owned and operated by Native Americans, African-Americans and whites. In 1969, “Warren County was … almost 70 percent black,” she explains. “And I think my father really liked the concept of the Native American community along with the Caucasian. … It was a nice mix.” McKissick saw an opportunity to develop infrastructure in an impoverished area, empowering communities that had already started working together for mutual benefit.
Early on, he and his family lived in trailers on-site; later, they moved into a finished house. But his children grew up and moved away, and McKissick eventually relocated to Durham.
In the meantime, his grand idea wasn’t so appealing to two North Carolinians in Congress. Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. L.H. Fountain saw Soul City as a misappropriation of federal funds and indirectly accused McKissick of embezzlement. Helms, a former Democrat turned Republican, and Fountain, a like-minded Democrat, successfully pushed for an audit of the project. After a yearlong audit, the Government Accountability Office absolved McKissick and Soul City of any misconduct.
But it was too late: A wave of negative press had turned public perception against the project.
By 1979, when HUD cut off its support, Soul City had built roads, water and sewage systems, a public swimming pool and tennis courts, a church, Soul Tech 1, the Healthco clinic and enough housing for the roughly 150 residents. One by one, however, the investors pulled out, and 10 years after construction had begun, Soul City was all but dead.
Even today, people still live in some of the old buildings, though, and paved cul-de-sacs with capped water pipes poke up out of the ground, waiting to be hooked up to nonexistent homes.
Dr. Mac, however, contends that her father’s project wasn’t an absolute failure. Soul City, she maintains, attracted talent and passion from all over the country. The people who worked to build it forged enduring bonds, shared ideas, networked and then moved on to effect change by other means. “Harvey Gantt was our first city planner,” she points out. The MIT graduate went on to become the mayor of Charlotte and, in the 1990s, mounted two unsuccessful bids to unseat Helms, garnering almost half the votes both times. Eva Clayton, who was also involved in Soul City’s planning from the beginning, became the first African-American woman to represent North Carolina in Congress.
In a 1989 interview published by UNC Chapel Hill, Clayton stated: “The idea was bold enough to attract both white and black, was bold enough to attract extremely talented people. In fact, it attracted me. … If I look now at the people who went to Soul City, one is now the dean of Meharry Medical College, one was the assistant secretary of commerce. … So the boldness of bringing health services, bringing economic development, was an idea that was very exciting to a lot of people.”
McKissick’s son, Floyd McKissick Jr., went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard and a law degree from Duke University. He now serves as Democratic deputy minority leader in the North Carolina Senate, and he recently stepped down as chair of the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus.
Before undertaking the Soul City project, McKissick Sr. had been a formidable force for political and social change in the civil rights movement. He was the first African-American to attend UNC Chapel Hill’s law school. In 1966 he became the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality and worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. to advance the cause of African-American equality under the law.
In a controversial move, McKissick endorsed Richard Nixon during the 1972 election cycle; but when Nixon won, McKissick was able to call the White House and speak directly to the president. Espousing a Black Power philosophy that focused on African-American economic clout and ownership of capital, McKissick leveraged his tactical relationship with Nixon to help ensure that Soul City would receive HUD funding.
The HUD grant, however, turned out to be both Soul City’s biggest asset and its greatest liability. In the short term, the money jump-started the ambitious project. But that government funding also gave Helms and Fountain the jurisdiction to initiate an audit, which led to negative stories about Soul City in The News & Observer of Raleigh that scared away investors and undermined public support. Thus, one might argue that McKissick’s strategy of acquiring big money through big politics was ultimately self-defeating.
Building a city from the ground up might have proved to be a successful way to bypass established municipalities’ systemic racism. But by using federal money to fund his radical vision, McKissick exposed his project to the systemically racist elements in higher levels of government.
Reflecting on Soul City’s rise and fall, Phyllis Utley, the minority student recruiter at A-B Tech, concludes, “It becomes mission critical not to be dependent on [entities] outside your circle.” She cites the example of Whitesboro, New Jersey, a more successful planned community that was also established by African-Americans, including Booker T. Washington. “They didn’t use government money: They pooled their own resources. … They had their own Equitable Industrial Association … their own structure for their finances. And Whitesboro exists today.”
Utley sees a similar approach in the collective spirit of Asheville’s African-American community before integration, when the Jim Crow laws had the unintended consequence of supporting a vibrant black economy. “When you are dependent on each other, from a capitalistic standpoint, you know that that’s your market, so people are loyal to that,” she points out. “There’s that commitment to the group, and it’s concentrated. So you have all these [African-American owned] businesses that flourished.”
But when integration came, it made the economic landscape more challenging for local African-American business owners, who no longer cornered their own racial market.
“We don’t have the hundreds of black businesses that there once were in this area,” Utley explains. “People pulled together and worked together and supported each other financially. … You had thriving businesses. And then, collectively, people had extreme pride in what they did.”
That indelible pride is what set McKissick on course to become a powerful civil rights advocate, his son maintains. “History here in Asheville is very unique: It’s very different. It is a diverse community that’s always had African-Americans involved in leadership. It’s always had people that were active and engaged. … And it was the inspiration he received while growing up in Asheville that inspired him to become active in civil rights.”
As a civil rights warrior, McKissick senior fought and won hundreds of court cases that integrated institutions. He also crafted strategies for claiming equal rights and empowering oppressed minorities. And though his attempt to build a city founded on the basic principle of human dignity for all failed, his tenacious example remains an inspiration to many.
“McKissick’s dream was, you know, ownership of one’s self and pride in one’s self; to me, I realized the dream in my own little capacity,” Jane Ball-Groom, McKissick’s former personal assistant, said in an interview for the radio program “99% Invisible.” Involved in Soul City’s creation from the beginning, she continues to live there in a house she owns. During the initial construction, she recalled, “I remember him walking around with that hat on. He had this cowboy hat, or whatever you want to call it: It was a beautiful hat. And he would just walk and knock on the door:
‘Jane Groom, you OK in there?’
‘I’m OK, Mr. McKissick.’
“He cared about people; he really, really cared about people. … He wasn’t perfect, but he was magnificent.”
Building a new economy
Nonetheless, McKissick’s missteps loomed large in his project’s eventual demise.
Soul City depended on big investors, and to provide the bulk of its jobs, he sought to partner with one big corporation. That corporate partner never materialized, however, and the other investors eventually backed out.
Jane Hatley, the Western North Carolina regional director at the Self-Help Credit Union, challenges that approach. “I believe in community-based economic development, versus the traditional model of ‘Let’s bring in a big company and create jobs.’ We collaborate a lot on economic development projects, working with Asheville Grown on the Venture Local conference,” Hatley explains, adding that the event’s message is, “Let’s build a new economy here: Let’s base it in ‘local.’”
Accordingly, the credit union also offers a Go Local certificate of deposit that enables people to “invest with us and know that the money will be used on local loans for homes or businesses. Most of our jobs here,” adds Hatley, “were created by small businesses, not by big companies. We need to continue to support those small businesses and build other small businesses [whose employees are] going to raise their children here, so the economy strengthens itself from the ground up.”
McKissick died of lung cancer in 1991. None of his immediate family live in Asheville, though there are still some relatives here. Anastasia Yarbrough, whose grandfather was McKissick’s cousin, moved to Asheville in 2011 to work as marketing coordinator at Green Opportunities, a local nonprofit. A violist and singer, she’s performed in Pritchard Park and with the Hendersonville Symphony.
“I had never heard about Floyd McKissick until I moved to Asheville. It was completely coincidence that I had this connection with this man who had done so much civil rights work,” says Yarbrough, who’s also been involved in community organizing.
Reflecting on Soul City, she notes, “It’s difficult to address systemic problems when you’re partnering with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.”
And meanwhile, she has mixed feelings about what she sees happening in her adopted city. “Asheville is going through the motions of gentrification and, as a consequence, low-income people are being further marginalized.” The city’s “so-called ‘affordable housing’ programs,” Yarbrough maintains, “are not accessible for people with low incomes. Who are they for?
“I don’t think that’s what Soul City was about. We have a long way to go.”
Still, Hatley’s philosophy fundamentally agrees with McKissick’s original vision. And in that sense, perhaps the civil rights pioneer’s birthplace, the scene of his formative years, could end up fulfilling at least a portion of the dream of Soul City, notes local business consultant Kimberly Hunter.
“Asheville has the potential to become a place where African-Americans, people of color, and lower-income communities thrive through business ownership,” says Hunter, who’s worked for both Mountain BizWorks and Venture Local. “There are a myriad of factors that impede or create access to impact the process; I have dedicated my entire 12 years in this community to delivering this as a reality. It’s been slow and there have been setbacks, but I absolutely see the potential.”
For more on Floyd McKissick Sr and Soul City, visit “Floyd B. McKissick Papers, 1940s-1980s” housed at North Carolina Central University.